Review : DREDGE : Cosmic Catch of the Day

DREDGE is the debut title from a small, four person team in New Zealand, named Black Salt Games. They came together to create polished, immersive experiences that are a bit different than what you might have played before. Considering DREDGE, a genre meld of one half relaxing fishing simulator and one half Lovecraftian cosmic horror panic management… I’d say they clearly nailed making something “different.” However, a new and interesting idea does not a good game necessarily make, and while the bizarre contrast between the two sides of the game is what hooked me, the way it all comes together is what really reeled me in.

In DREDGE, you play as a nameless fisherman en route to a small town located in a quaint maritime archipelago. You are heading there in response to a newspaper ad looking for a profession angler, and you plan on offering them your services. It’s more than a day’s sale to reach the town of Greater Marrow, though, and, as night falls, tragedy strikes when your boat collides with some jagged rocks in the water, the impact of which causing you to black out.

You awaken on the docks of Greater Morrow and are greeted by a short, stocky, and overly cheerful man who identifies himself as the Mayor of Greater Marrow. He explains to you what happens and that your boat is, unfortunately, not salvageable. Not all is lost, though, as he offers you the previous town fisherman’s vessel as he…won’t be needing it anymore. The Mayor tells you that by accepting this boat, you will be indebted to the town, but that debt can be paid back by catching and selling fish to the local fishmonger. Just as you are about to set off and get to work, the mayor gives you one piece of advice: “Get back by sundown, before the fog rolls in… it can really creep up on you.”

Give Me That Horizon

As ominous as the warning may appear, you set sail, and what you are greeted with is a beautiful world. The game makes excellent use of flat textures to create a pretty unique art style. Everything is presented in a somewhat muted and matte color profile that really adds to the character of the North Shore-inspired environment. The gentle reflections of the sun off the water really complete the game’s look. Each fishing trip in the game typically starts at 6am sunrise, and witnessing the sun rising through the clouds never got old. The game’s characters also share this somewhat muted look but are created in a way that almost looks like several shapes forming a human-shaped puzzle, making everyone feel slightly eerie and abnormal. It reminds me a lot of an original take on the artistic approach to the characters found in Disco Elysium. All of the many different types of fish, and other things, you will encounter all share this same art style and help make the game’s visuals feel distinct.

Completing the presentation is the game’s fantastic sound design. The ambiance of being out alone on the ocean is handled expertly, with the creaking of an old boat, the sound of the rudders cutting though the water, the wind, and the sea life really immersing you into this world. On top of this, you have a very subtle but effective soundtrack that really helps contrast the difference between day and night. The sound design is, perhaps, your greatest ally as you immerse yourself into the cozy gameplay loop of becoming the town of Greater Marrow’s prized angler; however, if you don’t heed the Mayor’s warning about sailing after dark, it can quickly become your worst enemy.

The Life of a Fisherman

While the game’s many docks and towns are simply just menus that allow you to interact with its many characters, you are given full control over your boat once you depart. The game itself involves you sailing around the archipelagos in search of various disturbances in the water in which you may be able to catch some fish. Catching a fish is relatively simple as you are asked to perform an assortment of mini games that vary depending on the type of fish you are catching.

After catching a fish, you need to find a place for it in your hull, which turns into early Resident Evil-style inventory management. As you return to Greater Marrow to sell what you have caught, not only will you pay off some of your debt, but you will also get additional funds which you can use to upgrade your boat and its equipment. Different fish require different equipment to catch, whether it be different types of rods or completely different tools, like trawl nets or lobster cages. Another way to make money is by accepting quests from townsfolk who may ask you to make deliveries or find specific fish, among other things.

You are given a few tools at your disposal early on, such as a telescope, that can help identify what specific fish may be off in the distance, which adds a scouting element to the game play. As you continue on the loop of setting out to catch some fish, returning them to the Fishmonger for some cash, you will eventually catch something that is…unusual. It may look similar to the fish you were trying to catch but with some kind of mutation. Returning this strange fish to the Fishmonger is definitely a weird experience. It’s an experience that does not go unnoticed as a short time later you are approached by a mysterious man who sets you on the game’s main story quest after outfitting your ship with a Dredge.

I won’t go into much detail on what unfolds in the game’s plot, but I did enjoy it. It’s the kind of story where you get more out of it the more you put into it. For the best experience, I would recommenced chatting with everyone you meet and checking in with them whenever you can, as well as heading off the beaten path as much as possible to explore the world. A lot of what fleshes out the story is not directly handed to you on the main path, especially if you want to see the game’s multiple endings.

As you catch fish, complete quests, and make enough money to buy some new equipment, you will quickly realize that the inventory space is quite limited, especially after you account for things like engines and lights. The ship’s hull has specific places where you can attach new tools, too, and more often than not the better the equipment, the more space it takes up. This is obviously a problem when you want to maximize the amount of fish you can catch before returning to the Fishmonger. Thankfully, there is a pretty nifty upgrade system in place to help deal with this. There is a mysteriously high frequency of shipwrecks around this small fishing community and, thankfully, with your Dredge you are able to salvage scrap from them.

This scrap can be given to the local Shipwright or Dry Dock workers to perform different upgrades to your boat. These range from increasing the amount of slots in your inventory, which are also dedicated to installing new equipment, to just increasing your hull’s overall capacity. On top of this, you also have a chance to stumble across research materials that can be used to unlock higher quality equipment to help you on your journey, such as faster engines or more capable rods. Seeing as how you spend the entire game driving this boat, every upgrade can really be felt and leads to a satisfying sense of progression as the game goes on.

The Night Is Dark and Full of Terrors

Eventually, though, you will undoubtedly stop adhering to the Mayor’s advice about sailing after dark, be it by letting greed take over or, perhaps, you are hunting for a fish that only comes out at night. At night, the entire atmosphere changes; in fact, the entire game changes. As the fog creeps in and your vision starts to fade, the cozy, relaxing and atmospheric fishing game turns into more of a Lovecraftian panic management game. As panic starts to slowly creep in, there is an eyeball at the top of the screen that displays the mental state of the fisherman. The longer you stay out there after dark, the more frantic the eye’s movement becomes, and the pupil changes from a calm blue to a stressful red. The ambiance and music changes as well, which helps deliver this feeling to the player.

Eventually, things will start to happen, and your mind will start to play tricks on you. You will honk at a boat in the distance, and it will honk back. And then, as you approach, it disappears. You will swerve out of the way of rock formations you swear were not there a moment ago. Stay out too long, and madness will ensue. And at that point, mysterious rocks are the least of your worries. What’s worse is that even if you survive the night, the madness doesn’t go away as a tired mind will start to wonder and wander. You will need to find a port to dock and rest in order to reclaim a clear head.

The contrast between playing this game in the day time vs the night time is quite stark, but each experience flows together nicely. Time only passes when you are sailing, fishing, or dredging, and it can sometimes sneak up on you just how long you have been out there for. If you opt to fish or dredge at night, those simple fishing mini games suddenly become way more stressful as you can’t see what might be lurking behind you when trying to reel in a catch. Fishing at night also increases your chance to find more mutant fish, which are worth more to the Fishmonger, so the stress is often worth your while.

A Surprising Combination

Cozy fishing simulator / cosmic horror panic management game is not a phrase I thought I’d ever use to describe a game, but here we are. It’s a surprisingly fun combination that only works because of the talent and belief in the idea that the team at Black Salt Games put into making it happen. The two sides of the game meld wonderfully together, while the fascinating world and story on offer serve up just enough to pull you along until the end. Top that off with some clever puzzles and challenges to overcome, and DREDGE is a memorable experience that I would recommend to anyone willing to try out something that is a little different. Overall, the developers nailed what they set out to do when they formed Black Salt Games, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from them.

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By Eric Bezanson

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